Phoolan Devi - the tragedy of a real bandit

Banned, disowned by its subject but a catalyst for change, the story of Phoolan Devi is director Shekhar Kapur's favourite
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The Independent Culture

When a director reflects on his body of work there is always a film that stands out as his personal favourite. Often that impression is coloured by the experience during filming. But when the on-set experience is astounding and results in a film that survives years; when a film is etched in the political consciousness of the people who watched it; when a film has caused a social re-evaluation; when a film has been at the centre of a political storm and caused uproar in India's parliament, what can a director say but that this was his most defining film – and one that he would find very, very difficult to surpass?

Bandit Queen (1994) was first banned by the censor board in India not so much for its acute language and the acute and frank depiction of the humiliation and brutality of rape, but mostly for its politics. This was a country where a society and a government controlled by the higher castes saw it as a potentially subversive film that could lead to political disruption. And it did.

Phoolan Devi, whose life the main character in this film depicts, was freed from prison, came out and formed her own political party representing the lower castes, galvanised oppressed women to vote for her, and won a seat in India's parliament. All of this happened after the film was released.

And so what was so incredible about that? Consider this: Devi was completely uneducated. She could not speak without using expletives that would make a grown man blush. She had spent her whole adult life as a bandit. She was married at 12 to man 18 years her senior, subjected to child rape, and she ran away. An outsider from that moment for breaking the demeaning cultural orthodoxy that puts young, low-caste women in such a situation, Devi became India's most famous outlaw, gaining the loyalty and respect of low-caste villagers and communities, and the hatred and resentment of higher castes. Her "career" ended when, in retaliation to being gang-raped in a village, she took every high-caste man from the village and shot down 24 of them. This act brought down the high-caste government in that state.

From that day on Devi was hounded and, ultimately, she had to surrender, but on the terms that she would be released after eight years in prison. When we made the film, Devi was still in prison after eight years, but was released by the time the film came out.

When the film was first shown in India, after a long battle with the censor board, it threatened to become a huge box-office grosser. In a country dominated by so-called "Bollywood" cinema, people cried foul – the film, they said, succeeded only because it had a woman full-frontal naked for the first time in Indian cinema.

So, in deference to that sentiment, the distributors of the film decided to do "women only" shows. These were even more popular, until a few high-caste people got together launched a public litigation against both the film and the censor board. The film was once again withdrawn, and would not be released for another six months while we all fought for it in India's supreme courts.

In the meantime, Devi went against the film. Mostly she claimed that she was not gang-raped, but later went against the very lawyers and activists who supported her and claimed that she was. But, more importantly, she won two terms in India's parliament. She was, tragically, gunned down in her second term, outside her home in Delhi. The case is unresolved.

I think the best films try not to resolve themselves. They set up more questions than they can answer, or even try to answer, leaving issues in audiences' minds. That to me is one of the great strengths of Bandit Queen. Audiences came out feeling uncomfortable and angry. A lot of the anger was thrown back at the film-maker. And why not? I was angry when I explored the story. I was also guilty of the horrendous inequalities in our society. I was guilty of every act in the film myself. We all are, for this is not the story of one woman. It is a story of millions of women in a society that all have in some way condoned or contributed to.

Bandit Queen was guerrilla film-making at its very height. It was adventurous, dangerous, rebellious, exploratory. But it was honest. All I asked for from my crew and actors were moments of honesty. And they gave me back more and more. And, in the expanse of high-end, big-studio film-making, I remember Bandit Queen as an oasis of the truest expression possible. I ache to go back there.

'Bandit Queen' is available now on DVD